October 29, 2012

"Ox Mountain Death Song"

Runner-up, 2012 Criticus Award!
(View announcement here. Winner here.)

By Kevin Barry
~3200 words

A soon-to-retire police sergeant stalks a terminally ill sociopath.

The omniscient perspective in this third-person narrative moves between Sergeant Tom Brown and a young rake referred to as Canavan (presumably his last name). Brown's determination to have Canavan "looked after" before his retirement in three weeks becomes a morbid obsession that drives the narrative. Meanwhile, Canavan's cancer diagnosis encourages him to act with impunity, pillaging widows and "planting babies all over the Ox Mountains." His preternatural knowledge of the landscape—"He knew the bog roads, the copses, the cypress arbors. He knew the recesses of the hills and the turlough hides. He knew the crannies of the coasts"—keeps him one step ahead of Brown for most of the tale.

The story has a fable-like quality that comes across in references to the characters as "particulars" but also as "types," and in allusions to the cyclical nature of the struggle in which they are engaged:
The years gave in, the years gave out, and only the trousers changed—breeches of sackcloth gave way to rain-soaked gabardine, gave way to tobacco-scented twill, and on to the denim variations (boot cut; straight leg; at glamorous times, beflared), and then to the nylon track pant, and then to cotton sweats. The signal gesture of a Canavan in all this time did not change: it was a jerk of thumb to the waistband to hoick up the pants.
The symbolic dimension is enhanced by consistent animal imagery. Canavan is compared on several occasions to a ferret, "the forked spit of the tongue lapping at the neck blood, the pointed teeth taking tendon and bone apart." Brown himself is a large, sweaty man who sucks honey straight from the tub, a fitting denizen of the eponymous Ox Mountains:
It was a place haunted by desperate mammals since the hills and mountains had cracked and opened—as the province of Connaught formed—a place with a diabolic feeling sometimes along its shale and bracken stretches; a darkness that seeped not from above but from beneath.
As the narrative progresses and Brown nears his much-coveted goal, it becomes clear that Canavan is not the only "desperate mammal" lurking in the Ox Mountains.

"Ox Mountain Death Song" is a unique story written in hauntingly beautiful language. One can practically hear the author's Irish lilt in the ebb and flow of the syntax, and the effortless lyricism pushes the piece into the realm of prose poetry. Despite the quasi-mythic dimension, however, the narrative manages to produce a pair of remarkably complex characters.


Reader poll: I found "Ox Mountain Death Song" to be ___.

October 22, 2012


By Callan Wink
~7100 words

A twelve-year-old farm boy is charged by his father with ridding the barn of feral cats.

The feline infestation provides the pretext for this third-person narrative as the main character, Augie, searches for the most efficient extermination method. But the real story is Augie's precarious relationship with those closest to him. First, he stumbles upon the true nature of his father's association with a nineteen-year-old farmhand named Lisa:
And then, through the open doorway of the grain room, there was his father, thrusting behind Lisa, who was bent over a hay bale, her cheek and forearms pressed down into the cut ends of the hay. Their overalls were around their legs like shed exoskeletons, as if they were insects emerging, their conjoined bodies larval, soft and mottled.
Meanwhile, Augie's mother, who is banished to an adjacent house to make room for Lisa, spends her days in dimly lit rooms smoking, playing solitaire, and devoting herself to the flimflam of the eponymous "breatharians":
You can attune your mind and your body, Augie. Perfectly attune them by healthy living and meditation, so that you completely lose the food requirement. I mean, it's not just that you're not hungry. That's not too hard. I'm talking about getting to the point where all you have to do is breathe the air and you're satisfied.
Finally, there is the story of Augie's dog, Skyler, who chews through a jug of antifreeze and is found one afternoon "stretched out on his side with a greenish-blue froth discoloring his grayed muzzle." After much time and energy spent inefficiently clubbing the cats with a torque wrench, Augie is inspired by Skyler's death to set out bowls of antifreeze-laced milk in the barn. The plan works brilliantly:
The floor was carpeted with twisted feline forms—tabbies, calicos, some night-black, some pure white, intermingled and lumpy and irrevocably dead. They lay like pieces of dirty laundry where they'd fallen from their perches after the tainted milk had taken its hold on their guts.
"Breatharians" deserves considerable credit for its originality and beautiful language, but I find it a notch below Wink's debut TNY story, "Dog Run Moon" (which predated this blog). The narrative attempts to weave too many threads together, and the breatharian theme feels like a distraction (especially because of the prominence it's given in the title). Even so, this is a solid effort from a promising new voice in American fiction.

Satisfactory. Strong (modified 24 December 2012, explanation here).

Reader poll: I found "Breatharians" to be ___.

October 15, 2012

"The Semplica-Girl Diaries"

By George Saunders
~8900 words

In a future world in which low-wage female workers are strung up on high wires as lawn decorations, a family gets more than it bargained for when it buys into the fad.

The narrative is written by the main character in the form of a first-person diary, for reasons he explains in the opening paragraph:
Having just turned forty, have resolved to embark on grand project of writing every day in this new black book just got at OfficeMax. Exciting to think how in one year, at rate of one page/day, will have written three hundred and sixty-five pages, and what a picture of life and times then available for kids & grandkids, even greatgrandkids, whoever, all are welcome (!) to see how life really was/is now.
Because the diary headers include months and days but not years, and because the setting at first glance feels like our world—complete with OfficeMax and DVD players and NPR—it's not until several entries in that the reader realizes we're dealing with a futuristic scenario. In addition to goldfish ponds, perfectly manicured gardens, and faux-Oriental bridges, the Joneses of the future hang garish displays of so-called SGs (the Semplica-Girls of the title): young immigrant women who are hoisted up together on thin "microlines" that pass through their temples and the newly-discovered "Semplica Pathway" of the brain. Like fish flopping on a stringer, they hang in this lobotomized state—"Is very gentle, does not hurt, SGs asleep during whole deal"—presumably for all the non-SGs to see and enjoy. When a fortuitous lottery winning allows the narrator to purchase an SG display that would otherwise lie beyond his means, he is initially ecstatic with his purchase, "as if at last in step with peers and time in which living." But things go awry when his youngest daughter begins to object to the cruelty of the lawn display and sets the SGs free.

What to say about this bizarre story? I love the critique of a consumption-obsessed world that exploits its underclasses while patting itself on the back for its humanity; and I love the sheer quirkiness of the plot and setting. Saunders is either brilliant or insane—probably both. The journal format, however, is close to a death sentence in my opinion. First, it drains the story of drama, for we never feel as though we're witnessing events in the heat of the moment; it's always after the fact, like watching a time-delayed sportscast when everyone else already knows the score (an inherent weakness of the epistolary genre in general). Second, reading the main character's prose is about as pleasant as chewing on a mouthful of nails. Presumably the point is the extent to which the English language of the future has been debased and corporatized by an instant-gratification society—tellingly, the narrator's father-in-law, who appears to be the only one who lives within his means, writes in beautiful complete sentences—but surely this could have been accomplished through dialogue.

I have some more minor objections as well. First, the futuristic setting seems out of sync with itself: on the one hand we're still in the world of OfficeMax and Burger King and Home Depot; on the other the SGs suggest a technological evolution far beyond the present. I suppose there's an argument to be made here for suspension of disbelief. A bigger objection is that things seem to happen just a little too conveniently: the lottery win, for example. Why not just make the narrator wealthy to begin with? His financial struggles feel like a transparent attempt to portray the difficulties of the current recession. Finally, though the narrator says his plan is to write for a year, we get only twenty-three days' worth—September 3-26—which makes the story feel incomplete.

As you can probably tell, I'm a bit torn about "The Semplica-Girl Diaries." There's much to admire, including the risks Saunders has taken with his form. In the end, however, the defects drag down a great story to a mere pass.


Reader poll: I found "The Semplica-Girl Diaries" to be ___.

October 8, 2012

"Fischer vs. Spassky"

By Lara Vapnyar
~3700 words

The death of Bobby Fischer triggers a string of memories related to a woman's emigration from the former Soviet Union.

The frame of this third-person narrative takes place in the near-present (2008), in which the main character, Marina, still feels the loss of her husband Sergey, who died thirty years earlier. On the way to the house of an elderly cancer patient, Elijah, for whom she is caring, Marina hears the news of Fischer's death. The revelation leads to the story's inner narrative, which unfolds at the time of Fischer's famous match against Spassky (1972). It turns out that Sergey, like many liberal Russian Jews of the time, was a fan of Fischer because he represented the public face of America and "the promise of everything that was good." Sergey decides that if Fischer wins the match then he, Marina, and their son will emigrate from the Soviet Union. As the match proceeds, however, Marina comes to realize that she does not want to leave, and the conflict crystallizes in her as an irrational hatred of Bobby Fischer.

The story does a fine job of conveying how seemingly obscure people and events—in this case Bobby Fischer—can cast long shadows over our lives. In the past, Fischer's defeat of Spassky changed Marina's life forever. In the present, his death revives the memory of her husband and prompts her to reassess her old animosity toward the chess champ. The many ironies—that Marina never wanted to leave the U.S.S.R. in the first place; that her husband died shortly after arriving in America; that Fischer, who represented the hope of many American-loving Russian Jews, became increasingly anti-Semitic and ended up dying in Iceland; that Marina's cancer patient prefers Spassky to Fischer, leading her to defend the man she once loathed—add rich texture to the narrative.

One weakness is that Marina's character feels underdeveloped. The lack is especially noteworthy in contrast to the opening paragraph, in which the main character's sense of loss is described in such vivid, visceral terms:
For a long time after her husband died, Marina used to scream. She'd feel the scream rushing up from her stomach, choking her from the inside, and she'd run out of the room, stumbling over her kids' toys, and hide in the hallway, in the narrow space between the coatrack and the mirror stand, biting down on her right forearm to muffle the sound. After the scream had passed, and she unclenched her teeth, there would be little circular marks on her arm that looked like irregular postage stamps.
Yet the inner narrative does not portray Marina as particularly close to Sergey (on the contrary, there seems to be a good deal of tension between them), and the frame narrative is not long enough to expound on her sense of loss (nor on the precise nature of her relationship with Elijah).

For someone who learned English as an adult, Vapnyar's command of language is astounding. "Fischer vs. Spassky" is a fascinating and poignant story that could be excellent with a bit more character development.


Reader poll: I found "Fischer vs. Spassky" to be ___.

October 1, 2012

"Jack and the Mad Dog"

By Tony Earley
~6000 words

Jack, of Jack-and-the-Beanstalk fame, lusts after a farmer's wife, gains the ability to see in the dark, has a run-in with a talking dog, and receives a scolding from a disappearing duo of buxom maidens.

This tongue-in-cheek retelling of the classic English folktale seems intent on two different things. First, it wants to demystify, so we start out with a drunken, lecherous Jack, more interested in mounting the farmer's wife than the beanstalk. Second, it wants to metafictionalize, so soon we have a character aware of his own fictional status, hoping for "passage into a proper story" as he struggles wildly "through miles and hours and years and lifetimes of corn and section breaks and the exposition implied therein."

One problem is that neither of these two strands is particularly original. Even Disney has jumped on the demystification bandwagon, and metafiction has been around at least since a character in Cervantes stumbled upon an Arabic-language manuscript that turned out to be the story of Don Quixote. Even so, if Earley had stuck with one of these strands, he might have produced a successful story. Instead, after six thousand words we still have no idea where the demystifying thread has led us, while the metafictional impulse seems to have produced a snake devouring its tail. "The black dog is going to get us all," one of the buxom maidens frets. "He's eating all the stories up from the inside." Indeed.

Which is a shame, because the language of "Jack and the Mad Dog" is fresh and strong. Unfortunately, it's insufficient to overcome the tedious narrative.


Reader poll: I found "Jack and the Mad Dog" to be ___.